Those rod-snatching bulldogging lake trout are among the easiest fish to catch through the ice. If that’s not the way you are ice fishign for lake trout, you’re doing something wrong. You’re not fishing in the right places or using the right presentations.
To get on the right track and to stay there, remember that lake trout are the cheetahs of freshwater—prowling predators that rarely remain idle in one or two spots. Instead, they glide through the crystal clear water column in small to medium size hunting parties, constantly on the move, scanning a wide periphery in front of them as they track schools of silvery ciscoes, whitefish, smelt, shiners, and perch. When you find baitfish, you find trout.
Fortunately, lakers also are structure oriented. It’s not that these open-water gypsies need hidden outcrops to hide or live around. But like the Plains Indians who herded bison over cliffs, or “buffalo jumps,” as they were known, lakers use these hard sunken structures to coral, confuse, and seize their milling prey.
The best winter trout locations are long underwater points with boulders, sunken humps and reefs, saddles between islands, necked-down channels, and high rock walls. But don’t discount the three most neglected lake trout hot spots: (1) walleye-looking shoreline food shelves in 10 to 20 feet of water; (2) isolated pockets or holes on 30- to 40-foot flats; and (3) shallow bays and coves.
The biggest mistake most anglers make is taking the scientific name of the lake trout—namaycush, Ojibway for “dweller of the deep”—much too literally. For most of the open-water season, lake trout are locked out of these shallow, productive, food-rich sections of the lake, because lakers flourish in water in the high 40°F to low 50°F range, and in summer, temperatures in these areas often approach twice that reading. But come winter, when every part of the lake, from a temperature perspective, is close to ideal for the cold-water-loving trout, they maraud these shallow sections like kids let loose once a year in a chocolate factory.
The catch, however, isn’t Hershey bars. It’s yellow perch. And you can score anywhere on shallow shoreline shelves, along the rims of the pockets, and in bays and coves leading into the main lake.
Even on ideal, deep, easily recognized winter trout structure—points, reefs, humps, saddles, and bars—one section typically is overlooked by ice fishermen. That’s the inside turn. While most anglers concentrate on the top, tip, and sides of points, experienced cold hands select the inside turn every time.
Biologists and fisheries researchers who follow radio-tagged fish have repeatedly noticed a reluctance to move up and over obstacles. Instead, predator and prey alike prefer to follow constant contours and narrow depth bands—even if that means traveling around a structure as opposed to over it. So while lake trout will run a herd of cisco or smelt into the tip of a point, they create a hysterical feeding maelstrom when they coral a school into the rocky dead-end snare of an inside turn. That’s why the best turns are created when two long points jut out to create a huge, deep, underwater horseshoe-shaped trap with no escape.
The biggest lake trout I ever hooked—only minutes after we released a 37-pounder—was in an area like this. When it popped my 20-pound mono line during a railroad runaway, the noise reverberated off the high granite cliffs like the crack of a high-powered rifle.
Depth is doubly important in winter. Early in the ice fishing season, lake trout can be caught in a variety of depths—typically from 20 feet to 60 feet—but often into water approaching and exceeding 100 feet deep.
As winter progresses, though, usually in February, a midseason lull begins. Have the trout vanished or stopped feeding? Hardly. To be sure, on some popular waters, the trout population has been skimmed off, but the fish also appear to make subtle shifts in location. Most likely, these movements are in response to changes in the forage fish community.
Many biologists speculate that a combination of ever thickening ice and added layers of snow combine to block sunlight penetration and darken deeper waters. In response, the phytoplankton and zooplankton—tiny plants and animals that provide the foundation for life—float higher in the water column as they follow the last rays of life-sustaining light. Baitfish similarly follow the plankton higher, with trout in hot pursuit.
How deep light penetrates and how high plankton and baitfish migrate depend on a whole host of factors including water clarity, ice thickness, and snow depth. So experiment and keep your eyes on your sonar.
Finally, never neglect confined open water adjacent to trout structure. Like crappies—but even more so—lake trout love to prowl over deep open water adjacent to structure. To the first-time or nonobservant trout angler, the trout appear to be cruising randomly out in the middle of nowhere. But they leave little to chance. Most often, they’re using the same depth they used when they were scouting the structure. Sometimes that’s the top, but usually it’s the depth the forage fish are using.
Location is the hardest part of the lake trout ice fishing puzzle. Presentation, by comparison, is easy, so long as you keep a few things in mind.
Whether you use tube jigs, Jigging Rapalas, airplane jigs, or spoons, lake trout love movement. And the erratic action that simulates a dead or dying cisco, smelt, or perch is usually the best. But you must develop a cadence. That’s because in the clear waters where lake trout roam, they’re accustomed to spotting a baitfish (or your lure) at a great distance, lining it up, and then demolishing it at a predetermined spot, just as a trap or skeet shooter leads his target. So if you throw in a zig at the last moment, when you previously zagged, you could feel a trout slap your lure and miss it.
Make it easy for the fish by developing a systematic rhythm. I find that my lakers key on country music, so I like to jig to the beat of Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, or Shania. Your trout may prefer heavy metal, rap, or even the three tenors. Just be sure to sing the tune silently, in your head, if you’re fishing with friends.
By the way, this is a good time to reinforce two highly peculiar lake trout traits. First, lakers rarely travel alone, usually swimming in loose aggregations of two, three, or more fish. So expect double and triple headers. That means when your partner catches a fish, move immediately into his hole as soon as he lands the trout. At the very least, move to the nearest vacant hole. If you’re fishing alone, on the other hand, and you catch a trout, watch your second line for a strike, and get your lure back into the water as quickly as possible.
Second, lake trout routinely smack a jigged lure and miss the hook. Most anglers assume the trout has missed the lure when, in fact, the fish has brushed against it to see if it’s edible. If you pull your lure out of the water to change baits—or to check it—you’re missing an opportunity. Most of those missed strikes (which aren’t missed strikes at all) can become fish on the ice if you go on point the minute you feel a trout slash.
Tube jigs are phenomenal ice fishing lures for lake trout, in large part because of the downward, spiraling, twisting motion you impart to them when you let them free fall on controlled slack. Smelly white Berkley Power Tubes and slimy smoke-colored Exude tubes are my go-to trout lures. But when the fish are picky and I need to fine-tune the color, I use thick-walled, super-salty, silver, white, and blue-hued Phoenix tubes, spiced with Power Bait or Dr. Juice scent.
Talking about fine-tuning options, slide the head of your jig hooks only about three-quarters of the way inside the lure. That maximizes the death-defying downward oval spiral that makes the tube jig so deadly. On the other hand, if you want a tighter, slightly more subtle fall, push it in all the way.
Sometimes is seems Lake trout are suckers for sound. That’s why many times I place a McCoy glass rattle inside a tube jig for added attraction. Strangely, at other times, any amount of added noise is a turn-off. So experiment. I also play around with 1/4-ounce to 5/8-ounce round ball, darter, and mushroom leadheads molded around sticky sharp Gamakatsu hooks to determine which action the trout prefer.
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